Clean Windows

Today I finished washing the windows in my house. All of them. Big double sash windows, 2 over 2 in the old part of the house, 1 over 1 in the rest, wide open panes with no mulleins. I washed the glass in the doors and the skylight too. The oldest windows are in the living room, and the old aluminum frame storms need to be up to seal the screen, so I also washed those. In all, I washed 29 windows.

This is a big deal, to me anyway. I hadn’t washed windows in decades. In fact, I don’t know when I last did it. David washed a few downstairs when he first moved in 10 years ago, and some of the windows are newer than 10 years old. But I know some of them haven’t been washed in over 20 years because the window in Adrienne’s old room still had space stickers and a Pearl Jam decal on it and she last lived here in 1998.

Last night I talked to a friend who also recently washed her windows for the first time in decades. Like me she needed to do something concrete and visible. The state of the world is distracting enough, and adding on this winter of getting pulled off track by family illnesses left me more adrift than I can remember feeling for a long time. Focusing on my writing projects, or any creative expression, has felt impossible. My usual slip-into-flow attention when I have days in a row with no major obligations has been blocked off. I just can’t get to that headspace where hours go by as I fiddle with poems, or revise an essay, write a column, or cut and paste a collage.

But I still have all this energy to do something. Earlier this spring I scrubbed the old grout on the tiled bathroom floor. The grime of 30 years didn’t go with the new soaking tub and paint job. Then it got warm enough to garden and I turned soil, fertilized, planted and thinned and weeded. My garden has never been in better shape.

Several weeks ago, just as it was getting hot enough to call for putting the screens in the windows, I walked into our bedroom and looked at the windows back-lit by late sun. They were filthy, smudged and spotted with dirt in a way I hadn’t noticed before. That’s when I decided I would wash every window in the house as I put in screens this year.

Cleaning my windows was more satisfying than I could have imagined. Not only did I do something useful, I can see what I did and the effect of my work brings me great pleasure. The outdoors has come into the rooms of the house in a newly refreshed way. I don’t have to look through dusty crud to look out at the pastures and cows, to see the maroon and green barberry bush out the front windows, the garden when I stand at the sink. Is the sky bluer, the leafed out trees more green?

The state of the world is still distracting and there’s always something to be reckoned with in a family as big as ours, but maybe I’m getting a bit of focus back. I wrote this. And as I wrote it I looked up now and then to admire my clean windows.

Right Brain Relief

One night in September David and I were doing our usual campaign check-in at the end of the day. I was thinking, if I’d known it would be this hard to run a campaign for state office I wouldn’t have done it. Then David said, “If I’d known running for State Rep would be this hard I wouldn’t have done it.”

David was about half way through knocking on the 896 doors on the canvassing lists of “persuadable voters” given to him by the Democratic party. Grueling work. We were figuring out how to deal with the mess of Facebook — comments misrepresenting and attacking David and two fake Facebook pages mimicking David’s campaign page, only these full of defaced photos of David, slashed by red banners proclaiming him a Gun Control Extremist. We were planning mailings and I was organizing volunteers to write letters to the editor, drive David as he canvassed, stuff mailings and write postcards to voters.

We were exhausted and there were still six weeks of this ahead. I wasn’t sure I could keep up, but two weeks before the election the pace slowed. I began to have blocks of time I could take up my own writing again. Except I didn’t. I kept checking things off lists — cleaning up the gardens, taking down screens, stacking wood. 

David and I went to an art opening and I talked to my friend Al, a celebrated clay artist, about not being able to write or do anything creative. “Of course you can’t,” he said. “You’ve been in your left brain constantly for months.”

He was right. I kept track of David’s paperwork and lists of door knocks, oversaw data entry, sorted spreadsheets of voters and postcards and people to invite to house parties. Everyday I updated an online list program so I could quickly scan across categories: volunteers, events, signs, print jobs & mailings, to-do tasks, social media. Every few weeks I had to file a NH Campaign Finance report. I used Excel more in those three months than I had in the previous 10 years.

With Al’s comment in mind, I signed up for The Grind for the month of November, a daily writing commitment to other writers through email. The Manic Mix category includes collage, for some reason, and I’d used The Grind before to get me started collaging.

It worked again. While I didn’t quite make my goal of creating a postcard collage every day during November, I made 21. What a relief it’s been, to be in my right brain. Enough of a relief that for the last few days I’ve begun to work on poetry again, I’ve written a couple of political columns, and just now I wrote this.

I’m Grinding again for December. A poem or collage every day. I might make it.

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The Gravitational Pull of Work and Haiku Habit II

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Two months ago I recognized how much my consulting jobs have cut into my time and whatever space I was finding in my mind for writing and creative concentration.  I remembered that while I was still working at the Coalition I started the practice of writing a haiku everyday as a way to stay in touch, however briefly, with daily creativity.  Not that my work in the movement to end violence against women hasn’t always had a strong element of creativity, but it’s not the same as writing down the constant scroll of language translating experience in my mind.

Two months later I’m admitting to myself that the gravitational pull of work has landed me back in a place where much of my mental energy is expended helping organizations and projects further their work to address domestic and sexual violence.  It’s not a surprise.  No one is emailing me and calling me asking for the next poem or essay or book.  People are emailing and calling and asking me to do consulting work.  I get paid, I get praised, I get absorbed.

So back to that Haiku Habit idea from two months ago.  I’ve hardly written a haiku since, but today as I got ready to be away traveling for a job, knowing that the first real frost may finally arrive while I’m gone, I decided to let the turn of the season turn me back to at least a small space for poetry in my head every day.  I hope it lasts.

Haiku Habit II

Late garden basket
Last cascade of summer porch
Frost’s chapter opens.

Asking For Help

I’ve been traveling through cities a good bit lately, mostly because I’m working and that means travel and meetings in cities. Walking the streets of DC Friday morning I got asked for spare change by a man sitting on a stoop shaking a paper coffee cup.

I didn’t stop and give him anything, but I did remember my two trips through Boston’s South Station in the last two weeks. The first time I was sitting on a bench outside, eating lunch and enjoying the sunshine and city energy. A young woman approached me and said, “I’m not a scumbag, really. Really, I’m not.  But I’m stuck and need $7 for a ticket home to Vermont.  I never do this but if you could just help me out I’ll pay you back, I promise.” I gave her $20 and she hurried off towards the bus terminal.

Sunday night I was sitting inside the bus station waiting for the last bus to Concord when a young man came up to me. “Excuse me,” he said. “My mother would kill me if she knew I was doing this, but I lost my wallet on my last bus trip, and now I don’t have the $15 I need for a ticket back to New York City.  Could you help me out?”

“Why are you asking me?” I said.  “Because I was here a week ago and got basically the exact same story.  Why me?”  The young man shrugged and said, “You’re sitting near the ticket counter.  I just thought I’d ask you.”  I told him to ask some other people and come back to me if he didn’t have any luck.

In Manhattan two weeks ago, waiting on the sidewalk for the BoltBus, people kept coming up to me to ask, “Is this the line for the bus to Boston?”  There’s no sign, people just line up near the TicToc Diner on the corner of the block with the New Yorker hotel.  I’d asked if it was the right spot myself, and trusting the people who’d told me it was, I reassured person after person who asked that this was the place to wait (it was).  After the fourth or fifth person who came up to a long line of people and picked out me to ask, the young man standing behind me said, “People like to ask you, don’t they?”  I nodded.  “I guess so, must be something about my face.”

The young man at the South Station bus station came back about 15 minutes later.  “No luck,” he said and I gave him $20.  “Let me pay you back,” he said, taking out his phone.  “Give me your email and I swear, I’ll be in touch.  Really, I never do this.”

I just shook my head.  “No, it’s fine,” I said.  “Have a good trip home.”

Where I’ve Been Instead

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Today I was scheduled to be in New Orleans, for the grand opening of the newly relocated Family Justice Center there, planned to coincide with the 7 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the five-year anniversary of the creation of a Family Justice Center.  The day was meant to recognize all the work a core group of committed people have done to make a safer city for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and it was going to be a chance for me to meet many of the people I’ll be working with there over the next year.  Instead, New Orleans is preparing for the arrival of Isaac, and I’m on my way home.

This trip was to be the first of many I’ll be making to New Orleans, to work on a U.S. Department of Justice sponsored project to create an effective Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) and protocol for the city.  I was looking forward to starting this job, which will undoubtedly be a challenge, as developing an effective SART anywhere is a challenge (think of all the systems you need to get to work together — law enforcement, advocacy, medical, prosecution — each understanding and valuing the others’ roles, and everyone supporting and not blaming and prejudging the victim).  But it will be a challenge in a city of survivors, people who know how to face enormous challenges and keep moving forward.  I expect to learn a lot, even as I’m bringing my own expertise in facilitation and sexual violence response to the table.

I thought about New Orleans all day today as I traveled home.  Instead of waking up in Louisiana, ready to start this new job with a celebration, I woke up to a drizzly Long Island morning.  I took the train with Adrienne into New York to get a bus home, and spent 45 minutes waiting on the corner of 34th and 8th, watching the Manhattan world flowing by.  When I arrived in Boston I had over an hour to wait for my bus to New Hampshire, so I got a sandwich and sat in the sun, thinking about the clouds in New Orleans.

I came home to a safe, dry house, a garden full of ripe tomatoes, and my flower pots on the porch still pumping out blossoms.  It was a day of city images, but certainly not the city images I expected.  I feel blessed, and I’m sending some of those blessings to New Orleans, hoping that Isaac delivers a gentle anniversary.

Columbus, Ohio

I’m in Columbus, not that I have any idea what the city is like, and I won’t by the time I leave either.  Here to do a day of training for domestic violence advocates on working with child protective services (I developed an expertise over the decades of my work at the Coalition on the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect), I came straight to the Fairfield Inn in the big box store outskirts of the city when I arrived yesterday, the conference center is directly behind this hotel, and I’ll leave directly for the airport when I’m done today.  I hear it’s a nice city.

I did get to ride with a friendly and interesting cab driver yesterday.  He’s from Ethiopia, fought as a guerilla rebel and got injured, and came to this country in the 80’s.  Although he’s 62 years old, he has three children under the age of 14.  “I was late to marry,” he said.

He asked where I’m from, why I was here, how were my travels?  I told him about leaving my job in June, that I’m still doing some work in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault, but that I’m also writing and spending as much time as possible with my grandson.  “He’s the most beautiful baby boy in the universe,” I said and he laughed.

It was a sweet laugh, because the cab driver understood, Emilio really is.

Right Now, A Year Ago

For those of you who haven’t read every word of this blog, including the page The Premise Is Grace, here’s a recap.  My original idea was to write a blog about the succession planning process, right from the middle of it.  So in the spring of 2010, just before I announced my planned departure from my job in June of 2011, I started writing posts for a blog, planning to begin making them public after my retirement as Executive Director of the Coalition was announced.

I wrote, but I didn’t post.  I discussed what I was doing with some Coalition Director friends, and they agreed with my hesitation — though I was writing mostly from my own experiences, what I was writing revealed too much about other people’s reactions.  My friends thought publishing the blog posts a year after they’d been written, with an update on what I was experiencing in my year post-Coalition, would be interesting (to them, especially, to know what it was like to not be working so damn hard) and respectful enough of the people I was writing about.

So I kept writing, though less and less frequently, and then finally just stopped.  Making most of what I was writing public wasn’t going to work no matter when I posted it.  But there are posts on that still-private blog that are worth looking back at, as a counter to what I’m experiencing now.  The short story of what I’m experiencing now is a great sense of relief and freedom.  I stepped off an edge, and there is plenty of ground under my feet.

From October 6, 2010:  I’m at a meeting of the Coalition’s member programs and Peggy is providing an update on the search process.  The amount of energy that’s going into finding my replacement makes me feel guilty.  We have so much other work to do!  Now there’s this whole transition process on everybody’s plate.  Is this the best way to be doing this?  Sue J. asked me last week, when we saw each other in Chicago, did a year’s notice feel too short or too long?  I think the board, staff and member program directors would say, “Not enough time!.”  It’s feeling too long to me.  I’m sitting in the middle of a process that involves me letting go of a huge part of my life, convincing everyone else it’s okay to let go of me, and all of us stepping together off the edge, trusting there will be someplace to put our feet.  I’m feeling so ready to take that step.  And yet, right now, here I am, in it.

What Happened to “After Grace?”

Over a year ago I started my original blog, intending to document my final year in my job. Having done a lot of reading about succession planning, I thought a blog providing insight into a succession planning process in progress would fill a gap.  So, I started writing. But I followed my instinct, confirmed by other coalition director friends, not to make the blog public.  There was too much current content about people’s reactions to my plans to leave the Coalition after 30 years.

My plan then was to keep writing “After Grace” (the name I gave the blog), and wait to make the posts public during this year, my year after leaving.  I’d write about what I was going through having made, or being in the midst of making, a huge transition, and then also post whatever I’d written the year before.

But by March I was hardly writing any posts for After Grace, and then I finally stopped.  There wasn’t just too much current content about other people, there was too much content about other people period.  That’s an issue I think any personal blogger has to pay attention to, the boundary between one’s own story and others’.  What are my stories to tell, and what stories do I have no right to make public?

So for now, After Grace will be a private record.  In the weeks to come, I’ll review the posts and see if there’s anything that would be appropriate and worthwhile to post.

In terms of my own story post-Coalition, I’m too busy right now to comment.

The Spin Cycle

I wrote about the spin cycle in March, while reading Margaret Roach’s book and I shall have some peace there.  In Roach’s book, which chronicles her time after stepping out of a super-busy, mega-Manhattan career life, she talks about the spin cycle in washing machines.  Once that drum is spinning, it doesn’t matter if you turn the washing machine off.  It doesn’t matter if you unplug the machine, the momentum keeps that heavy drum spinning and spinning.

I’m 8 days into my post NHCADSV-ED life, and the drum is spinning.  It’s making me feel dizzy and sloshy and a bit unbalanced.  But I got a sweet reminder last night that I wasn’t always on this cycle.

David and I went to see Greg Brown — excellent show, including an opening set by Jason Wilbur, who deserves mention and recognition.  He was great on his own, and then playing with Greg Brown, double delight.  At the show, I saw an old friend, Tim, who I hadn’t seen for at least a decade.  Probably more like 15 years.

“I heard about Eric,” he said, and held his hands to his heart.  “How are you?  How’s your writing going?”  I told him I’d just left my job and my plan was to start writing more again.  “Did you choose to leave?  What happened?”  I realized he knew a more balanced me, the me who had being a writer as a central identity, the me who was raising children and who gardened and hung out with groups of friends and worked part-time.  He had no sense of me as the Executive Director of the Coalition, no idea of how big my job had gotten, how much of me it was taking up, how it had crowded out other identities.

“Every time I go into Gibson’s book store I look to see if there are any books by you,” he said.  I’m keeping that idea of me in mind today, watching it spinning by on the drum.

June 15, 2011

It’s a sunny morning, the first one for a week.  We’re on the back deck drinking our cappuccino, the sun working its way up through the trees along the brook, leaf filtered rays of light shining on the grass.

I find the period after every word that I see used in writing overly bloggish (see it a lot in blogs) and lazy.  Why not find grammatically correct and accurate language to express what it is that needs to be described? But this morning I can’t resist.

One.  More.  Day.